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Trump’s campaign chair worked closely with Russian operatives before and after 2016 elections, Republican-led panel says

‘Breathtaking level of contacts’ between Trump officials, Russian operatives, top Democrat says

Thomson Reuters · Posted: Aug 18, 2020

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort looks on at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016. The Senate report said Manafort’s presence atop the campaign represented a ‘grave counterintelligence threat.’ (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort collaborated with Russians before, during and after the 2016 U.S. election that pitted Republican Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton, a Senate intelligence committee report said on Tuesday.

The panel found Manafort’s role and proximity to then-candidate Trump created opportunities for Russian intelligence, saying his “high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services … represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

The individuals mentioned are Konstantin Kilimnik — identified unequivocally as a Russian intelligence agent — and Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Manafort had established relationships with both men through his consulting work in Eastern Europe prior to the Trump campaign.

As with previous criminal investigations and Robert Mueller’s special counsel report, the Senate committee examined contacts between Manafort and Kilimnik, including the communication of Trump campaign polling data “on numerous occasions.”

“The committee was unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or campaign strategy with Kilimnik or with whom Kilimnik further shared that information,” said the report.

After the November 2016 vote won by Trump, Manafort is accused in the report of working with both Deripaska and Kilimnik “on narratives that sought to undermine evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.”

Manafort was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2019 for various offences but has since been released to serve his sentence in home confinement due to COVID-19 concerns.

The assessments were contained in the fifth and final chapter of the Republican-led Senate intelligence committee’s report on its three-and-a-half-year probe of allegations that Russia sought to help Trump defeat Clinton.

Stone in contact with WikiLeaks

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, vice-chair of the committee, said in a statement that the report detailed “a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections.”

Previous chapters have ratified U.S. spy agencies’ findings, made public in January 2017, that Russia had sought to help Trump in 2016 by denigrating Clinton and harming her presidency if she did prevail.

The last chapter of the committee report, released as Trump prepares to face off against Joe Biden in the 2020 election, is likely to be the most definitive public account of the 2016 election controversy.

Trump has previously not rejected the idea of accepting foreign help in this year’s campaign. Traditionally anyone involved in a campaign is expected to report to the FBI any suspected attempts by foreign actors to meddle in a presidential election.

The report also said the WikiLeaks website played a key role in Russia’s effort to influence the election in favour of Trump and likely knew it was assisting Russian intelligence.

Roger Stone, a longtime friend and adviser of Trump, reacts after Trump commuted his federal prison sentence outside his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last month. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Founded by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign and a top campaign aide in the weeks before the 2016 election, yielding a drum beat of negative coverage about the Democrat.

As Russian military intelligence and WikiLeaks released the hacked documents, the report said Trump’s campaign sought advance notice, devised messaging strategies to amplify them “and encouraged further theft of information and … leaks.”

“Trump and senior campaign officials sought to obtain advance information about WikiLeaks’s planned releases through Roger Stone,” according to the report, though it concludes the “extent of authentic, non-public knowledge about WikiLeaks that Stone obtained and shared with the campaign,” could not be conclusively determined.

Stone, a longtime associate of Trump dating back to the 1980s, has also been convicted in a criminal court, though Trump has commuted his sentence.

There is suspicion in the report that a flurry of calls Stone made on Oct. 7, 2016 included one to Trump, though that couldn’t be conclusively proven.

That was the day the existence of a years-old Access Hollywood production tape in which Trump is heard bragging about groping women became known to the public.

Within an hour of that bombshell reporting, WikiLeaks released arguably its most damaging trove of information stolen from the Clinton campaign.

Republicans in defending Trump have seized on the momentum Russia investigations received from the so-called Steele dossier, which was raw intelligence — much of it unsubstantiated — compiled by a former British intelligence officer.

Christopher Steele worked on behalf of Fusion GPS, a research company at first hired by Republican operatives and then Democratic ones as Trump made his way to the general election.

The report released Tuesday states the FBI “gave Steele’s allegations unjustified credence,” and the ex-spy’s reporting “lacked rigour and transparency about the quality of the sourcing.”

“We found no evidence of collusion, but we did find troubling actions by the FBI, particularly their willingness to rely on the Steele Dossier,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who replaced Richard Burr this year as the top Republican on the committee.

Attorney General William Barr has previously said he was disturbed by the FBI’s reliance on the dossier in order to obtain a wiretap to monitor Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Last week an FBI lawyer was charged with lying to authorities about the circumstances surrounding the third, flawed application in 2017 to eavesdrop on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Democrats have countered that mistakes made by FBI employees did not alter the fact that there were a wide-ranging number of contacts between Russian actors and associates closer to Trump than Page, including with son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, his personal lawyer Michael Cohen and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz outlined the mistakes made by the FBI in a report, but concluded there was no political bias in investigating ties between the campaign and Russia.

Republican Rep. Ken Buck asks former special counsel Robert Mueller whether he believes his investigation turned up evidence that could be used to charge U.S. President Donald Trump with a crime after he leaves office. 1:34

Mueller’s two-year investigation led to a report that did not allege a conspiracy, but highlighted several examples of the Trump team welcoming the help from Russia.

In addition, Mueller examined multiple episodes in which Trump sought to stymie the Russia investigation, though the report did not reach a conclusion on whether he had obstructed justice.

But in an exchange with a Republican congressman in his lone appearance on Capitol Hill to testify about the report, Mueller said he believed there was enough evidence to charge Trump with a crime — specifically, obstruction of justice — had he not been president.

In contrast to the level of co-operation of the parties investigating in the Senate, a House probe into similar subject matter devolved into bouts of partisan rancour and duelling, wildly conflicting reports.

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